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Rocking and mocking the vote

Pop culture entertains and now informs an electorate savvy in 21st century communications and sensibilities.

COLETTE BANCROFT
Published October 10, 2004

From left to right, it's on every pundit's lips: 2004 could mark the first time popular culture plays a major role in a presidential election.

Hit movies aimed directly at unseating George W. Bush!

Rock stars raising money for John Kerry!

Television comedy subverting the news media!

Internet bloggers reporting from the conventions and exposing errors on network TV!

It's the end of the world as we know it. Or not.

"This really is the year of pop politics," says Christine Cupaiuolo, editor of the Web site PopPolitics.com and Web editor for Ms. magazine.

She says it's anyone's guess how much influence pop culture will have on the election. "We are in the moment right now, and anyone who claims to have a read on the significance of pop culture is just making a guess."

But there's no doubt that pop culture and politics are intersecting in ways they never have before.

This week, Bruce Springsteen, REM and dozens of other top rock, pop and country performers have been touring swing states in the Vote for Change tour. The Dixie Chicks and James Taylor had a concert date in Clearwater on Friday night, and the final show is Monday night in Washington, D.C. The 37 concerts, most of which sold out, are expected to raise about $10-million for Democratic candidates, including John Kerry.

Fahrenheit 9/11, filmmaker Michael Moore's scathing attack on the Bush administration, was released in June and became the first documentary ever to earn more than $100-million. In August, it became the first movie to be reviewed from the podium at the Republican National Convention (although the critic, Sen. John McCain, later admitted he hadn't seen it). On Tuesday, it was released on DVD.

Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has given a surreal twist to satire of politics and the news media by inadvertently becoming an esteemed part of the latter.

The acerbic show bills itself as "fake news," and Ben Karlin, the executive producer, told the New York Times last week, "We have no agenda other than holding on to our cushy, high-paying, basic cable jobs."

But a Pew Centers poll this spring reported that 21 percent of people ages 18 to 29 get most of their political news from The Daily Show and other TV comedy shows. In July the show won the Television Critics Association's award for outstanding achievement in news and information, beating out Frontline, 60 Minutes, Nightline and Meet the Press.

And last week the Columbia Journalism Review, the bible of the newspaper industry, included Stewart on its list of the nation's 10 most influential political reporters.

Just in time for the election, Stewart and the show's writing staff published The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. On Monday, it was ranked the No. 1 seller on Amazon.com. Not bad for a fake news show.

On the Internet, political bloggers have opened a whole new network for communication, miscommunication and argument. In this election some of the bloggers who focus on politics have become media stars.

On Sept. 26, the cover of the New York Times magazine featured a photo of old-school print political reporters R.W. Apple and Jack Germond, clad in suspenders and striped shirts, peering at a laptop screen over the bare and creamy shoulders of Ana Marie Cox, a.k.a. the Wonkette, a Washington blogger whose sexy persona and raw language are as famous as her political gossip.

For the first time, ranks of bloggers received press credentials at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Blogging has been touted by its legion of fans as a new kind of journalism, unfiltered by the corporate agenda of mainstream media.

It's also been criticized as amateur hour. Few bloggers have any training as journalists, and most of them are vehemently partisan (on both sides; the most famous blogger of them all is conservative attack dog Matt Drudge).

And although most wear their politics on their sleeves, some bloggers are less than forthcoming. The recent brouhaha over the use of forged memos in a Sept. 8 60 Minutes report on Bush's military service record began when a blogger using the name Buckhead posted a detailed analysis of the "proportionally spaced fonts" in the memos less than two hours after the broadcast. Such fonts weren't in common use in the 1970s, Buckhead explained, so the memos must be faked.

It turns out that Buckhead is Harry MacDougald, an Atlanta lawyer and longtime GOP activist (he helped draft the petition urging the Arkansas Supreme Court to disbar Bill Clinton). How MacDougald, 46, came by his expert knowledge of typefaces used when he was in his early teens remains a mystery, since he has refused to be interviewed about where he acquired the information in the posting.

Blogging's influence is difficult to measure, says Dan Shea. He is an associate professor of political science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and founder of the Center for Political Participation.

"I think it's a relatively small group that's involved in blogs. You heard all this stuff about (Howard) Dean's campaign, that it was this radical movement. Then Dean got hammered in Iowa.

"What they didn't think about was that the average voter in Iowa is probably a 47-year-old housewife, and she doesn't go on and blog until 2 a.m."

* * *

"Popular culture, entertainment and politics is an old story in America," Shea says.

"In the 19th century, which many scholars call a heyday period of political activism, entertainment was very important. For example, Uncle Tom's Cabin (a bestselling novel) was a huge influence on the abolitionist movement."

But you don't have to go back a century to find pop culture shaping politics. Shea says all you need to do is listen to talk radio and Fox News.

"Maybe Fahrenheit 9/11 is the response to Rush Limbaugh. Maybe all this is the left's response to the success of conservative talk radio and to what we see on the TV talk shows on Fox. Make no mistake, that's entertainment, that's not news."

Conservative radio and TV talk's boom may have helped put Bush in the White House, but many of the pop culture forces in play this election cycle are aimed at getting him out. And pop culture activism on both sides is moving into new genres - and morphing into new forms.

Pop culture and politics were bedfellows in the 1960s and '70s, but the relationship was never so partisan. Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye wrote protest songs, but they never played concerts to raise money for George McGovern.

Robert Altman made M*A*S*H as a commentary on the Vietnam War, but he never shot a documentary about Richard Nixon's dark side. From Laugh-In to Saturday Night Live, comedy television has satirized presidents, but nobody ever put Chevy Chase or Will Ferrell on a list of top 10 political reporters. And 30 years ago, activists got their messages out in alternative newspapers passed around to a few thousand people. Nobody had dreamed of the Internet.

Cupaiuolo says that three decades ago, the lack of partisanship may have been part of the spirit of the times, a general rebelliousness against corporate and government structures. And the number and variety of media outlets was much more limited.

* * *

Today, Stewart and Springsteen, Moore and Wonkette all are weighing in on the election with a newfound directness. "It is absolutely exceptional," Shea says. "I've never seen anything like it. In political science terms, this is probably a critical election" that could change future contests.

Although the influence of conservative talk radio and TV over the last decade and the current blossoming of liberal voices in movies, television and the Net may seem to grow out of opposing world views, they share a fundamental motive: mistrust of the mainstream media.

All of these pop culture phenomena take some of their energy from Americans who feel they don't get enough political information - or accurate information - from the usual sources.

In the 1990s, conservatives who thought the media were liberal tools of the Clinton administration turned to Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

Now, liberals who think the corporate-lackey media are giving Bush a free ride on the Iraq war and other issues turn to screens big and small. An extraordinary number of political documentaries have been released in recent months, including Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Bush's Brain, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry and George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. But the blockbuster has been Moore's incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11. And it is as much a critique of the media that cover Bush as it is of the president.

Moore appeared at the USF Sun Dome on Oct. 3 as part of his Slacker Uprising Tour, speaking to a diverse crowd of about 2,500. He may look like an unmade king-sized bed, but he got a rock star's reception from the audience, which gave him the first of half-a-dozen standing ovations just for strolling onstage.

Moore rang through the expected subjects: Bush's debate performance (complete with Three Stooges sound effects), reasons for not voting for Ralph Nader, the rising death toll in Iraq.

He was, as he said, preaching to the choir, and the audience applauded often. But some of the biggest hands came when he tore into the media he "outed for not doing their job" in Fahrenheit 9/11.

Moore talked about the sequence in which Bush somberly says to a gaggle of reporters at a golf course, "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you." Then he brandishes a golf club and says with a grin, "Now, watch this drive!"

"They didn't show you that part," Moore said to cheers. "They were all saying, who the hell gave him the unedited clip?"

He got another standing ovation when he asked, "Don't you think something's wrong when you're getting your news from a guy with a high school education in a g-d-- Florida State ball cap?"

Cupaiuolo says political pop culture may be influencing the media as much as it influences politics. "While Fahrenheit 9/11 has obviously galvanized moviegoers, I think the multitude of anti-Bush films and books - as well as the edgier political humor on shows like The Daily Show - have all been influential in getting the mainstream media, which was late to criticize the war or the administration's failures, to provide more balanced coverage."

And then there's the question of just how much these phenomena do galvanize audiences. Will Fahrenheit 9/11 or Springsteen's guitar rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner move undecided or Republican voters to cast their votes for Kerry?

Shea says, "Is a Dave Matthews concert going to pull you over to being a Kerry supporter? I don't think so. It really takes a prolonged exposure to that kind of influence to change the mind of undecided voters.

"I do think that prolonged relationship between politics and pop culture creates a buzz, gets people talking. And that's important, especially for young people. Are their friends talking about it?"

The real influence, he says, is more likely to be mobilizing voters. "What these things are going to do is churn up the faithful. And they're going to look to those undecided voters, those people who don't vote, and try to persuade them to vote.

"What it does is make the faithful say, "Holy s--, we've got to get the people out.' "

That could translate, he says, to "turnout much higher, partisanship much higher. This might be the beginning of a new generation of partisanship."

Nick Pettit of Clearwater and Brandon Tenney of Bradenton came to see Moore at the Sun Dome. Both are 17; Tenney will turn 18 in time to vote Nov. 2.

They admire Moore's films. "We both want to go to film school," Tenney says.

But Moore's political message is why they see him as a hero. "I would say his movies woke me up to a lot of things," Pettit says.

Pettit and Tenney have been involved in protests and get-out-the vote efforts, and they say they see a growing interest in politics among their friends. "It's a rebellion thing now," Tenney says. "It's cool to vote."

To those who say show business is no place for politics, Tenney says, "It's everybody's business to get involved in politics." Movies, music and other pop culture phenomena don't make up people's minds about voting but reaffirm other influences and make people curious enough to do research, he says.

And sometimes entertainment opens the door to serious issues. That's the theory behind Billionaires for Bush, who were also in attendance at the Sun Dome.

Members Meg A. Bucks, Emma Nentdomain and Clea Channel, dressed in posh summer frocks, pearls and heels, flash signs saying "4 More Wars" and "There's No Profit in Peace" to the amusement and puzzlement of the departing crowd.

The Billionaires demand that Bush be re-elected. "We paid for eight years, and we expect to get them," Bucks says.

"Are you really for Bush?" one young man asks Nentdomain.

She bats her eyelashes. "If I'm really a billionaire."

Billionaires for Bush is a street theater political protest movement, founded a year ago and now boasting more than 90 chapters nationwide. It's another pop culture creature, started on a shoestring and nurtured on the Internet, where its Web site offers instructions for starting a chapter, creating a Billionaire persona and more.

Bucks, in non-Billionaire guise a New York City college instructor named Elissa Jiji, is the "richly upholstered co-chair" of the New York chapter. She flew down for a whirlwind round of appearances in the Tampa Bay area.

Jiji, 36, says Billionaires for Bush was conceived as a way of "using humor as a way to get a message across. It disarms people. I mean, who doesn't love a tiara?

"They might disagree with you, but they're willing to entertain your idea if it makes them smile."

- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

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